Back in Saigon -- aka Ho Chi Minh City -- the avenues are lined with these fragrant nooks and crannies where passers-by nosh on a variety of brochettes, intricately stuffed rice-paper parcels, and the great national comfort food, pho. As the war waned and Vietnamese immigrants found their way hereabouts, the glories of this vibrant, age-old cuisine were folded into San Francisco's larder mosaic. Since then the city's Vietnamese restaurants have evolved into several disparate subgenres.
In a class by itself is the edgy and perpetually trendy Slanted Door. Then there are the little sandwich shops, like Saigon Sandwiches at Larkin and Eddy, where you can enjoy a sweet, tangy, crisp, spicy banh mi on a baguette for the price of a couple of Muni transfers. Nearly as inexpensive, and equally transcendent, are such nationally acclaimed holes in the wall as Tu Lan at Sixth and Market and Cordon Bleu at California and Polk, home of the dreamy five-spice half-chicken.
At the other end of the scale are those dazzling, expense-account paeans to Vietnam's colonial days, Ana Mandara in Ghirardelli Square and Le Colonial downtown. And somewhere in between are the trim little neighborhood establishments, like La Vie and Le Soleil in the Richmond, where the venturesome diner can experience the tastes and textures of French-Vietnamese cuisine without arranging for a bank loan. The Tao Cafe belongs to this latter category.
It's located on a quiet corner of the Mission, in the former location of the late, often great Flying Saucer. All traces of the old tenant's funky ambience have been renovated away and replaced with a cool, tranquil setting of rattan chairs, fresh flowers, lemongrass-green walls, and authentic objets d'art. Tall ceilings and expansive windows give the place an airy feeling, and a sound design of light jazz and classical adds to the chic surroundings.
The food, unfortunately, seldom lives up to its inviting packaging.
There is one main difference between Vietnamese food and Thai food, the other great Southeast Asian cuisine to make it big on these shores: Whereas Thailand hasn't been besmirched by European colonials (and only occasionally by its Asian neighbors), Vietnam has been invaded and colonized on a regular basis since 100 B.C. China hung around for a thousand years, and France for most of the 20th century, and as a result Vietnam is not only the sole Southeast Asian cuisine to employ chopsticks and stir fry, its practitioners are adept enough at haute cuisine to staff many a Parisian three-star kitchen. The native cookery, meanwhile, is vivid enough to assert itself above and beyond these culinary incursions, offering up the fresh, spicy flavors of garlic, citrus, lemongrass, and chili peppers with clarity and precision.
There's little on Tao Cafe's menu to reflect this rich, multicultural culinary history.
The People's Salad (bo bun) is almost a lone success. Tender strips of beef are stir-fried and served warm over a bed of greens, peanuts, mint, and cilantro with a bright, vinegary dressing. Sweet, pungent, cool, and crisp all at once, it's Vietnamese cookery in delicious essence.
Another delight is bun cha, a fine example of the country's grilled-brochette traditions. Here strips of pork are marinated in a green-onion dressing, grilled until perfectly tender and juicy, and served with a subtle tamarind sauce. The only vegetarian dish, the crunchy tofu, is pretty good as well -- it's garlicky and peppery with a subtle hint of lemongrass -- but there isn't much else to it besides a leaf of iceberg lettuce.
Two of the desserts are extraordinary. One is a dish of chocolate ice cream that just happens to be the darkest, deepest, chewiest, fudgiest chocolate ice cream this side of Firenze, with an intriguing hint of cinnamon as well as mint sprigs and orange sections that are easily avoided. The other great dessert is a lychee sorbet strewn with bits of candied ginger. The sorbet itself is sweet and creamy with chunks of lychee ribboned through the creaminess, and the ginger creates such a sharp contrast throughout that a real sense of gustatory excitement is the result. The rest of the menu can't approach it.
The house pho is made up of bland broth and noodles with no subsequent flavor to absorb, a far cry from the glorious, long-simmered cornucopia pho-lovers are accustomed to. The fresh spring rolls look terrific, their translucent casings bursting with sprouts and herbs, but while you can see the mint and the cilantro and the shrimp, you can't taste much except the sprouts. (An overly sweet peanut dipping sauce doesn't help much.) The crispy rolls, meanwhile, are greaseless as well as flavorless and are doughy to boot.
Among the entrees are prawns wrapped in pork strips, marinated with lemongrass and grilled until tough, bland, and rubbery; a five-spice beef stew with no discernible five-spice, leaden noodles, the occasional tasty carrot, and beef as chewy as Juicy Fruit; and a chicken breast curry with an inoffensive, mildly spicy broth that doesn't quite make up for chicken overcooked to the shoe-leather stage.
In addition to those already mentioned, desserts include sweet red strawberries with a sugary, nearly flavorless lime sorbet, a dense, clumsy banana tart with a crust you have to saw through, and a red bean-coconut shake with too much ice, not enough red bean paste, and an overall flavor that according to our table's red bean- coconut shake expert was "straight outta the jar."
Then there's the nonchalant, poorly timed service. It's pleasant enough, and knowledgeable enough, but you're left to your own devices for lengthy and irregular intervals. Uncleared tables, unfilled water glasses, and a 20-minute wait for the dessert menu are the norm. ("So much waiting, and the wait ain't worth it," observed one fellow diner.)
The wine list, meanwhile, features 27 moderately priced bottles from all over, plus a daily selection of open bottles for sampling by glass or carafe; this daily list isn't printed out, but spoken (rapidly), so instead of ruminating over your selection (a near-necessity when you're dealing with a cuisine of spicy, complex flavors), you're forced into a now-or-never snap decision. I myself settled for a bottle or two of Vietnam's own 33, a typically light and prosaic yet thirst-quenching beer. It's a fine choice on these balmy Mission evenings, especially if you stick to Tao Cafe's ice cream and score a chorizo torta at El Farolito beforehand.